Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shi’ism

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump’s speech on Islam, written by notorious Islamophobe Stephen Miller, who used to organize Orwellian Two Minutes Hate sessions against Muslims at Duke, is just as bizarre as everything else Trump does.

Miller-Trump imply, as has become common in right wing American discourse, that Muslims have a peculiar problem inasmuch as they produce terrorists. What do they think the Ku Klux Klan is? I estimate that people of European Christian heritage polished off as many as 100 million persons in the 20th century and that Muslims may have killed 2-3 million.

Trump seems to think that pumping $110 bn in new shiny weapons into a volatile Middle East will lead to peace! If there is any sure correlate of war, it is massive purchases by one regional power of new armaments. You have to use them while you have the advantage or your rivals also acquire them.

Trump managed to insult Islamic civilization by implying that the pre-Islamic civilizations in the region were better:

“Egypt was a thriving center of learning and achievement thousands of years before other parts of the world. The wonders of Giza, Luxor and Alexandria are proud monuments to that ancient heritage.
All over the world, people dream of walking through the ruins of Petra in Jordan. Iraq was the cradle of civilization and is a land of natural beauty.”

This is sheer Orientalism, an allegation that Pharaonic Egypt, Nabatean Jordan and Sumerian and Babylonian Iraq were great civilizations but that once Islam came, they went downhill. Miller-Trump do not know about al-Azhar University in Egypt being among the oldest in the world (George Makdisi argued it was *the* oldest). They don’t know about Harun al-Rashid’s House of Wisdom where Greek philosophy was debated in Arabic by the Abbasid caliph and his court sages at a time when Charlemagne was trying to learn to scratch out his name. They don’t know about the Abbasid invention of algebra or of Omar Khayyam’s use of geometry to solve algebraic equations. The only compliment they give Islamic civilization is that Dubai and Riyadh have skyscrapers, which is surely the blind spot of a Realtor.

Miller-Trump sweep up national resistance movements like Hamas and Hizbullah with al-Qaeda! Neither of these would exist if the Israelis hadn’t a) expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and then come after millions of their descendants and militarily occupied them in 1967 and b) if the Israelis had not launched a brutal war of aggression on Lebanon in 1982 and attempted to occupy permanently 10% of Lebanese territory. The Shiites of south Lebanon *liked* the Israelis before 1978. The 1982 invasion killed 10,000-20,000 people and involved indiscriminate artillery barrages and aerial bombing of Beirut, which Usama bin Laden alleged helped inspire him to destroy some American skyscrapers.

Designating Hizbullah a terrorist organization but not doing so to the armed Israeli squatters who routinely attack Palestinians in their own homes is typical of everything that is wrong with US policy in the region. Attacking civilians is always wrong (and is cowardly). But Hizbullah in 1984-2000 mainly attacked other soldiers, who were illegally occupying Lebanese Shiite land.

As for Yemen’s Houthis, they are not a creature of Iran, which has relatively little to do with them. They are rural Zaydi Shiites who resented Saudi attempts to proselytize them, marginalize them, and make them Wahhabis. You’ll never have peace in Yemen as long as you don’t recognize legitimate Zaydi interests.

For Trump to attack Iran, which just had a popular election where the electorate bucked the choice of the Leader, from Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where the populace have no rights, is weird.

The American Right is deeply implicated in radicalizing Muslims. Afghan Islam was radicalized by the Reagan jihad against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower and Reagan both attempted to enlist Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism against Communism. Most Palestinians were secular or mainstream until the Israelis cultivated Hamas as an alternative to the PLO.

Trump wants to site a center for combating extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia! The Wahhabi form of Islam practiced in that country encourages extremist ideology! The Saudis took the practice of takfir or excommunicating Sunnis and Shiites to the next level. In the 19th century they even excommunicated the Ottoman Emperor!

If the Saudis want to combat extremism, they have to formally abjure this unfortunate heritage of Wahhabism and roundly condemn the unilateral branding of people as non-Muslim when they maintain that they are Muslims. (In the Sunni and Shiite mainstream, takfir or excommunication of a Muslim is rare and disapproved).

Contemporary radical extremism in the Muslim world is founded on a few basic principles:

1. takfir or the excommunication of other Muslims for being insufficiently puritanical, anti-democratic, anti-Western, etc.

2. exalting holy war or “jihad” as they understand the word (it does not mean holy war but merely struggle for the faith in the Qur’an) to a basic pillar of the religion.

3. Willingness to commit suicide to blow other people up. Suicide is forbidden in mainstream Islam just as it is in Catholicism.

Saudi Arabia has to condemn all three– excommunication, the militarization of jihad, and homocidal self-sacrifice.

So Miller-Trump are barking up entirely the wrong tree here, as you would expect from completely ignorant people sticking their bare hands into about 50 bee hives.

Then they condemn Iranian intervention in Syria but don’t mention that Saudi Arabia backed the radical terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam that had genocide against Syria’s Shiites on their minds. Nor do they admit that without Hizbullah, Homs would have fallen to al-Qaeda in Syria (which the US has tacitly supported; yes) and could have been used to cut off Damascus to resupply.

Any fair-minded and knowledgeable person in the Middle East would read this speech as a farrago of Orientalist prejudice against Muslims, coddling of Wahhabis, slamming of Shiites, and continued rank unfairness toward the Palestinians in favor of holding the Israelis completely blameless for their massive ethnic cleansing campaigns, which are ongoing.

That terrorism can be addressed by vague words and by failing to address the underlying social causes is a non-starter. That war and violence can be tamped down by unfairly taking one side in a sectarian struggle or by flooding massive new arsenals into the region are the pipedreams of bigots who cannot face their own bigotry.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

RFE/RL: “Trump Calls To ‘Isolate’ Iran In Address To Arab, Muslim Leaders”

30 Responses

  1. Thank you for this shrewd assessment of Trump’s braindump. Veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk has a fairly similar reading today: link to

    I liked this bit: ‘By the time Trump reached the bit in which he threatened the bad guys – “if you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned” – he sounded like a speech-writer for Isis.’

  2. I don’t doubt that just about every person in the middle East knows exactly what Trump thinks of Muslims, but when a man like Trump arrives with boat loads of dollars for the taking, its prudent to forget about things he said on the election campaign stump. Even the most extreme hate and loathing can be bought off with a fist full of dollars!

  3. He could hardly have expounded such truths, even if he was aware of them. More likely he was just trying to appear amiable. He joined a ceremonial sword dance in the same spirit, think of it like his daughter’s ditty for Xi Jinping.

  4. How does one finish this sentence: Placing inside Saudi Arabia the headquarters from which to combat extremist ideology in the Middle East is like…..

  5. I read Prof Cole’s informative response to Trump’s ghost written speech (Best line from the speech…”I am not here to be judgemental”) and thought of Bob Schieffer’s gratuitous but expected main stream media analysis ..”Trump sounded presidential!”

    I’m not here to be judgmental but I like what Cohen recently wrote about Trump….”He’s a boy’s idea of a man. He’s a man’s idea of a boy.”

  6. The mind continues to boogle that, starting in 2011 when Syria’s civil war began (a mere ten years after 9/11), the US was once again supporting Al Qaeda and it’s clones/off shoots. It’s the most amazing geopolitical backflip to me since Reagan sold guns to the Iranians in the 1980s.

  7. “Then they condemn Iranian intervention in Syria but don’t mention that Saudi Arabia backed the radical terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam that had genocide against Syria’s Shiites on their minds.”

    This is the first time I’ve seen IC refer to Jaysh al-Islam as a terrorist group. Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and other terrorist groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have already carried out pogroms against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. It’s not that they have “genocide on their minds,” but they have actually emptied entire sections of Syria and Iraq through their carnage.

    • apologies for the tone of this post… Been too cantankerous lately: for no good reason.

  8. “Israelis … expelled hundreds of thousands”.
    It was European colonialists. “Israelis” weren’t invented then.

  9. Miller-Trump’s speech in Riyadh is so bizarre that one does not know where to begin. He certainly felt quite at home among the gilded palaces and chandeliers of his fellow billionaires who have very little concern for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. As Trump was speaking, the whole town of Qatif and the village of Awamiyya in Arabia’s Eastern Province were in lockdown due to the protests of the people calling for the release of their prisoners and for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

    The Saudi ruler and thousands of so-called Saudi princes plunder the wealth of the country as though it is their personal property. No wonder that they called the whole country after their clan. Salman’s young and spoilt son Mohammad, at the age of 31, not only is deputy crown prince but is also in charge of the army, the economy and practically everything else in Saudi Arabia. While holidaying in the south of France a few months ago, he saw a super yacht belonging to a Russian tycoon, fancied it and bought it on the spot for 500 million euros, about 200 million euros more than the owner had paid for it. It is no wonder that he has no qualms about spending close to $400 billion on U.S. weapons and other deals. It is strange that the home of the most fanatical Muslim sect organizes a summit meeting to fight against religious extremism!

    What we are witnessing is the triumph of Netanyahu’s evil plan to unite Israel and the most reactionary Arabs to fight against Iran, while ignoring the plight of the occupied Palestinians. It is sad that the “leader of the free world” falls for this despicable plot. Speaking a day after a most vibrant and competitive election in Iran when 75% of eligible voters elected a moderate president and extended a hand of friendship to the West, he brands Iran as the source of terrorism, while closing his eyes to the lack of democracy, the suppression of women, and massive violation of human rights of his hosts. Truly nothing is more bizarre.

  10. A good summary to which I would like to add one thing. Trump said that Hizbullah was created by Iran, which is ridiculous. They were created by Lebanese in response to the Israeli invasion. Robert Fisk’s book Pity the Nation is a great account of that time.

  11. What Trump and his minions do not know about the Middle East would fill the Library of Alexandria. What they do know barely fits on a match book cover. But ignorance about the rest of the world has always been a source of pride for most Americans, who take it for evidence of patriotism.

  12. Yeah, Trump does not know of The House of Wisdom in 9th century Baghdad or of Islamic science including mathematics and astronomy.

    Well we hardly expect intellectual astuteness from Trump who is too intellectually lazy to read – neither the executive orders he signs or the intelligence reports given to him by the intelligence services.

    It is doubtful that Trump has read book in his entire adult life.

  13. They don’t know anything about Islam as nobody told them. Even Obama, on 4 June 2009, talked about “the timeless city of Cairo”, not understanding that Cairo was founded by the Fatimids in the 10th century.
    As regards Trump’s bizarre appearance in Riyadh, it might be remembered as the DRIVE THEM OUT speech. Whatever this guy has trumpted in the last 1 1/2 years or so, it mainly applies to himself.

  14. On further reflection, it seems to me there could be something brewing behind the curtains here. We have this ‘I am not your enemy’ speech accompanied by a vast military deal ($350 billion over 10 years with 110 now) the elements of which the KSA cannot possibly need and which would under present economic circumstances seem to represent a level of irresponsible extravagance, all this woven along with aggressive demonisation of Iran, swiftly followed by similar levels of anti-Iran invective in Israel. Could Trump, in exchange for the arms deal, after all he’s a deal maker, be winking the offer to let them attack Iran while he turns a blind eye, or even covers their backs? I wouldn’t put it passed him.

    • U kidding! Boat load of dollars?
      Saudia will INVEST in the US and have decided to buy $350billion worth of arms for the UIS which will keep hundreds and thousands of americans employed!

    • $110b in TEN years. Besides The Saudis Do not even know hpw to use the stuff they are buying. Israel knows this and has ALLOWED Trump to go ahead.

    • You have a point: I thought 110 was IT. Perhaps it bears revisiting the cost of this stuff. Bear in mind, any deliveries must defer to Israel’s requirement for a qualitative edge. But there must be a plot/understanding in play. KSA’s predilection to fight to last (US) soldier is understood, so that’s one place to watch as events unfold. Something deeper must be afoot.

  15. Thank you for the light shed on this very complicated story that has nothing to do with religion and everything about power and greed.

  16. Look for a new executive order next week that might actually be constitutional. The loser ban executive order!

  17. Al-Khwarizmi was Persian-born but based in Baghdad. In fact, the Abbasid dynasty had Persian lineages and a large percentage of people with Persian origins lived in Baghdad and adjoining areas at the time. Another Muslim polymath with Persian origin of the time was Rhazes or al-Razi who produced an encyclopedia of medicine.

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